What is the Fourth Dimension?


Charles Howard Hinton was a mathematician who wrote science fiction stories, called ‘Scientific Romances’; he was particularly interested in extended dimensions, beyond the third, and worked on systems of geometry for understanding these.

What is this text about?

In this work, originally published in 1880, Hinton is concerned with the idea of the fourth dimension as one of space rather than time. The argument shown geometrically on page 11 and then on to page 13 proposes that an extension from a square to a cube is essentially the same kind of extension as from a line to a square (H G Wells works from these ideas on the first page of The Time Machine). This would be a move to a ‘fourth direction’. The argument is essentially one of logic, though Hinton accepts that we cannot conceive what the fourth dimension is.

Was this subject extended by other writers?

Edwin Abbott in 1884 published Flatland, a social satire in which the inhabitants of Sphereland observe the social limitations of the geometrical inhabitants of a land with only two dimensions. An occasional visitor from Sphereland to Flatland educates an inhabitant in the idea of three dimensions, but the informed leaders of Flatland take the political decision to suppress this information.

Did this text influence H G Wells?

H G Wells wrote later in his autobiography that while studying to be a scientist he ‘heard about and laid hold of the idea of a four-dimensional frame for a fresh apprehension of physical phenomena, which afterwards … gave me a frame for my first scientific fantasia, The Time Machine.’ In his preface to the 1931 edition Wells states that ‘it was never the writer’s own peculiar idea’, which suggests that Wells had heard about Hinton’s work on time as a dimension.

The first pages of The Time Machine clearly show the same development of thinking as in Hinton’s work. Wells’s Time Traveller explains the fourth dimension in terms of geometry, but this is developed so that the fourth dimension is seen as temporal rather than spatial. The effects are the same, as Hinton states that ‘a four-dimensional body would suddenly appear as a complete and finite body, and as suddenly disappear, leaving no trace of himself, in space …’.

Full title:
What is the Fourth Dimension?
1897, London
C H Hinton
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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